Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Cosmic Idiot

I am a naturally awkward person who can stumble over threads on the ground, run right into furniture that isn't blocking my way, and do and say stupid things so effortlessly I amaze myself. So it isn't as though it's hard to catch me doing clumsy things . But there is one woman in this town who has been unerringly (and eerily) present during my many diverse acts of klutzery over the years, and I am beginning to wonder what is up.

The first time I met this woman was in a local shop where I had gone with my kids. At the cash register, I reached into my bag to pull out my purse--and somehow managed to scatter the contents of my bag all over the floor. Half-eaten candies fused to their wrappers, coins, a hairbrush bristling with hair, a grotty-looking lipstick, and several dozen receipts all went flying, covering several square meters of floor. Before I could pick up my belongings, I looked straight into this woman's eyes. Her expression--eyebrows raised in amused scorn--did nothing to make me feel any less clumsy.

The second encounter was in front of the school where my daughter and I were having a spirited 'discussion'. I stopped to take a deep, steadying breath and there my censorious friend was, her eyes narrowed in disapproval as she took me in, in my red-faced, shrill-voiced, fishwife state (this woman, I have since learned, has three grown children.  I wonder: did they never give her a hard time?). Our third meeting was when I was learning to drive and had stalled the car at a busy intersection in a town forty miles away. I looked up and saw those familiar, deeply disapproving eyes frowning at me in my rear-view mirror, and that was when I knew that there were other forces at work--cosmic forces. Since that last occasion, there have many been others. She has caught me in my nightgown and hiking boots, scraping ice from our car windshield with a square plastic flower pot, swearing a blue streak at a split-open garbage bag on the sidewalk, shrieking and in hot pursuit of a cat who came into our house and sprayed three rooms.

But here is the eerie thing: other than on these occasions, I doubt I have seen this woman at all. It is as though she materializes only when I am doing something ridiculous and spectacularly unattractive.

Last night I saw her again. We arrived home late, after a full day of work, learning Chinese, and helping our daughter move, and in the midst of the first good rain we've had in weeks. I was in my pajamas and ready to go to bed, when I realized that I hadn't put down organic slug pellets. I was exhausted, but I could not chance leaving the slugs to ravage my hostas, zucchini, and pumpkins--after that long dry spell, they'd be out there in force with all the rain. So I got up, found a flashlight, and went outside with the slug pellets. And there on the paving stones in front of our entrance, I saw literally dozens, perhaps hundreds of slugs. They were so thick on the ground I could barely manage not to step on them as I made my way across the concrete. I am all about saving, and it was crazy to waste good pellets on all those slugs, so conveniently accessible. So I found a plastic container and embarked on a slug safari. In the end, I scooped up enough slugs to fill a half-liter container. But what could I do with them? I shuddered to think of them slithering up the sides of the trash can, and I couldn't stomach the idea of emptying them onto the pavement and squishing them. Three blocks away from our house there is a creek where ducks often come. I decided to dump my prey there. At least they would have a chance--or make a good meal for the ducks.

I was half the way there, holding my plastic container full of slugs at arm's length--and yes, in my pajamas--when there she was. The look on her face topped any of the looks she has given me before, and believe me, this woman has scorn down to a fine art. I held the slugs out by way of explanation, gave her my brightest smile, and bid her a cheery good night-- in Mandarin.

After all, there are other forces at work here--cosmic forces. And if I'm destined to look like an idiot, I might as well go all the way.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Li's Clever Mother

“Teacher, you are okay?” Li asks me, creasing his forehead and pointing to his chest. Poor kid: right in the middle of his tutorial, I've had a coughing fit. I coughed through part of the first class, my coffee break, and now Li's tutorial.
“I'm fine,” I wheeze, a Kleenex pressed to my mouth. “Don't worry—the doctor says I'm not infectious.” I lapse into another coughing fit. “I just—cough—have a tendency—cough, cough—to cough.”
Li doesn't understand tendency, so I have him look this up in the dictionary. This frees up some more time for me to cough some more.
Li's expression gets even more serious. “You must be careful! When you go home, you must rest.”
I laugh at this. I have another class to teach after this one, plus a long commute, and when I get home, the housework will be all mine.
“When I go home, I must do laundry and cook dinner,” I say. “My husband has a cold too, and his is a lot worse than mine.”
Li's eyes open wide and he shakes his head. “No, no—you must not housework!” he says. “That is very bad for women with cough!”
Much as I'd like to agree with anything that gets me out of housework, I have to question this. “Isn't it bad for anybody with a cough?” I say. “Woman or man?”
He shakes his head. “Especially bad for woman.”
This intrigues me. “Who told you that?”
“My mother,” Li says, his eyes wide and innocent. “She often cough.” He does a good impression of somebody with a bad cough and points to his chest, putting on a pained expression. “So I know that many kind of work bad for woman with cough.”
Thinking that Li's mother could well have a serious illness, I pull out the dictionary again. But after we've gone through asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, and tuberculosis, Li shakes his head firmly. “No—my mother just cough, not disease.”
“So what kind of housework is bad for, um, women with a cough?” I ask.
Li frowns, considering this. “Clean floor. Also shop—very bad to carry heavy thing if cough.”
“What about cooking?”
“Very bad.” He furrows his brow. “Also wash clothes.”
“Cleaning the toilet?”
He blinks. “Yes, that is bad too.”
I'm really beginning to enjoy this conversation. I enjoy it even more when Li proudly tells me that he can cook, mop floors, shop for dinner, and do the laundry, that indeed he has become quite skilled at all of these in order to save his mother from the pain of chores that are Unsuitable for a Woman with a Cough. I really want to meet Li's mother. Li may be a bit naïve, but he's not a dumb kid, not by any stretch of the imagination. He studies diligently, is capable of critical thinking, and is almost always the first person in class to answer some of the harder questions. However his mother has worked her magic I have no idea, but I take my hat off to her.
“Take care yourself, teacher,” Li tells me, pushing his chair back and gathering up his books. “Do not housework! Then your cough stop.”
I tell him that I will leave the housework for the weekend. “Thank your mother for me, okay?” I say. “Tell her your teacher says good job.
Li looks puzzled, but he nods.
I watch thoughtfully as Li exits the classroom, his arms full of books that I know he is going to study.
I am seriously considering introducing Li to one of my daughters.